By Mark Guarino
The 33-inch vinyl record celebrates its 55th birthday this year. In 1948, the year it was invented, the new format was instantly considered much more desirable than 78s. Not only was the vinyl they were made of more durable than the shellac of 78s, but LPs (long players) held more music — up to 60 minutes worth.
The 33 didn’t become an art form until the late ‘60s when groups like the Beach Boys, The Who and The Beatles embraced the format and used its lengthier storage space to create sequences of songs that had an arc and told a story. Soon, bands with concepts in tow turned to making albums meant to be absorbed in one sitting. Singles were more or less considered relics of the Eisenhower era. The modern idea was a band had better have some quality albums under its belt if it wanted to make it into the history books.
Times have changed. It took about two decades for vinyl records to change the artistry of making music. Not so for the compact disk. The allure of LPs diminished quickly after CDs entered the marketplace, its very design feeding upon the LPs’ weaknesses. Where LPs were bulky and could easily scratch or warp, CDs were promoted as more durable, more user friendly and especially more utilitarian — now you could enjoy the highest quality audio on the go.
But as time proved, the CD revolution had a downside — it reverted the record industry back to the ‘50s. With the gatefold sleeve gone along with the allure of forcing the listener to remain solitary, a new generation was raised to think of music, not in terms of artfully constructed albums, but rather in terms of instant hit singles. In the last decade, hit songs once more became the number one priority of record companies. Business practices changed and the new model was to invest heavily in artists who may not have a career of albums ahead of them, but could instead deliver a reliable string of hit singles in the shortest period of time.
In titling their recent collection of hits “Chapter One,” The Backstreet Boys delivered the industry’s biggest inside joke. The boy band’s career is considered defunct. And what they have to show for their seven years of fame? Only a handful of songs easily crammed onto a single disk.
But even with that phase of teen pop over, the album is still in jeopardy. Now it faces a new foe: iTunes. Apple’s much-hyped online merchandising plan is upfront about how it plans to save the music industry from bankruptcy. Consumers will no longer be encouraged to download entire albums. Instead, they will be prompted to purchase single songs, at 99 cents a download. That revelation created strange bedfellows out of artists like Madonna, Linkin Park and Radiohead who all reported their queasiness with the concept last week. Besides scrutiny that the new model will slash their album sales, “the fear among artists is that the work of art they put together, the album, will become a thing of the past,” attorney Fred Goldring, who represents Alanis Morissette, told billboard.com.
Once again, the writing is on the wall for albums and this time, there looks to be no going back. There are few artists left on major labels interested in even making cohesive albums anymore. Those that are — Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Billy Corgan’s Zwan — have burned high on the charts only briefly before descending fast.
Can the album as an art form be sustained? This year, the award for resurrecting the lost art of making long players goes only to Radiohead and the White Stripes. Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” (Capitol) is a collection of impressionistic guitar rock that attempts to capture the straining world mood in the era of George W. Bush. They are the modern equivalent of British prog rock bands of the ‘70s like Yes and Genesis.
The White Stripes however, owe much of their appeal less to intellectual concepts and more to the time-honored practice of studio spontaneity and rough edges. They are in step with the bluesy stomp of Led Zeppelin and the myth-making theatre of David Bowie. The 14 songs on the band’s fourth album “Elephant” (V2) were reportedly made for about $10,000 — a feat considering that could easily be the typical catering budget for most bands. The album’s liner notes proudly state “no computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering” of “Elephant” and instead Stripes Jack and Meg White went to London to record for a 10-day period on a vintage eight-track tape machine leftover from the ‘60s.
The back-to-basics methodology is not the primary charm of this band but it helps. “Elephant” is the most visceral sounding album you’ll hear this year. As the tape rolls hiss, guitar solos squeal in unearthly pain, sticks bounce off cymbals, fingers slide between strings, space breathes between choruses and verse and you can hear Jack talking to himself or shouting a cue to drummer Meg from inside a tornado of noise and rudimentary drumbeats. There is not only homemade craftmanship to be heard putting these songs together, but also the physical muscle that keeps them from falling apart.
Both Whites are also well schooled in the fading art of rock mythmaking. By now, much has been written about their choice of wardrobe (with colors strictly red, white and black) and the questions whether they are cousins, brother and sister or husband and wife (they are divorced). The two have only worked to fuel the mystery and while the self-imposed rules of their public persona are not as complex as say, Ziggy Stardust, they have succeeded in creating a world between the audience and the performer that is entirely engaging. This is what Robert Zimmerman did when he invented Bob Dylan in 1958 — open a door to a time and a place that is not specific or completely familiar, but somehow takes perfect shape in the world of the individual song.
The kabuki makeup, blood red clothing and unsettled family ties of the White Stripes may be a clunky way to patch together a mystique, but its homemade assembly is more unique than the majority of new bands today, all grimly fashioned to look like tattooed bouncers at your local sports bar. After all, the Whites are from Detroit, a city with a history of working class reinvention, from the Pygmalion-like pop divas of Berry Gordy’s Motown to punk rock instigator Iggy Pop.
The White Stripes’ affection for the past is genuine, but it does not make them simple revisionists like many of the bands lumped into the recent garage rock movement. They are a band that covers old country and blues — from Loretta Lynn to Son House to Dolly Parton to Bob Dylan — and the motivation in all these cases seems to be to bite down on the pain or desire or lonesomeness boiling inside each song. So many of the songs on “Elephant” distance themselves from the pre-packaged nihilism or self-absorption most bands of the last decade have worn on their sleeves. “I Want To Be the Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” pleads one song title. Another, “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” is a simple love ballad on acoustic guitar. In interviews and in the album liner notes, Jack White has expressed that at its core, his music is about “the death of the sweetheart,” or, to put it simply, when pure emotion and simple intent are crushed by the irony, meanness and cynicism of the present day.
The music, however, is far from sentimental. The nightmarish chorus of voices and earsplitting guitar will turn your spine cold on “There’s No Home For You Here,” a song about casting your lover out into the night for good. “In the Cold, Cold Night” takes the perspective of the outcast except, sung by Meg, it is quiet and almost sweet.
“Elephant” is like that, it sways from loud and frightful to quiet and playful. Back and forth it goes, a tension riding upon Meg’s tottering tempos that never forecasts when the storm will hit. When it does, “Elephant” explodes. “Ball and Biscuit” is built upon a lusty blues riff with Jack White grunting and sweet talking like a dirty old man three times his age. His singing can be honeyed and it can also terrorize. He is a boy, man, devil and healer. Not since Nirvana has a band so easily tapped into the complexities of human emotion and channeled them, messily but succinctly, through melody and noise.
Despite the current desires of music companies to focus just on songs to sustain a marketplace, we still need passionate artists who understand that when songs are assembled collectively, the art of listening becomes much more powerful. An album like “Elephant” reminds you life is far from being a push button experience. It sets you off on a journey — if you can spare the time.